Sylvia Meo, R.D.
All About Pumpkins and Winter Squash
The arrival of pumpkins and winter squash in stores and public markets are a sure sign of fall and Halloween. Winter squash are some of the most versatile, nutritious and delicious ingredients of the season. They can be used in various dishes and preparations because of the many different varieties that exist. Although we prepare them more as we would a vegetable, they are botanically a fruit.
Winter squash come in a range of colors, shapes and sizes, they are also known for having a mildly sweet and versatile flavor that works in both sweet and savory dishes, and are extremely nutritious. They are starchier than summer squash and can be used as a great substitution for potatoes, sweet potatoes, pasta and rice. They are high in fiber (one quarter of daily recommended intake in a cup), low in calories and full of important vitamins like vitamin A (the deeper the color of the flesh the more vitamin A it contains), C (1 cup has about 30% daily recommended intake), B6, folate and K, as well as minerals like manganese, copper and potassium, and their deep orange color comes from their high carotenoid content making them a super antioxidant food!
Some of the outstanding benefits these fruits provide are as antioxidants, anti-inflammatories, immunity boosters, as well as in blood sugar regulation and the prevention of cancer and cardiovascular disease. The high potassium and manganese content make them a great choice for strong, healthy bones. I highly recommend using them as a staple in your home!
How to Select and Store Them
Like with any fruit or vegetable, you must carefully inspect your squash before purchase. You want a squash that is firm, heavy for its size, and has a hard and dull looking skin. Avoid any fruit that has thin, shiny skin, brown spots or blemishes, large nicks or bruises along the surface and that feels too light for its size.
Unlike summer squash (zucchini, cucumber, even watermelon), they have a thick, hard skin/shell that gives them a longer shelf life (up to 6 months for some ex. Spaghetti squash) and makes them last through the winter (hence their name) even though they are harvested in the fall. You don’t even need to make space in the refrigerator for them; these keep best at room temperature in a dark (or away from direct sunlight), cool and dry place. If you want to extend their life even longer, remove the skin and seeds and cut your squash into chunks and freeze raw or once cooked, just remove the skin, mash it up and pack it into freezer containers.
How to Enjoy Them
They can be roasted, grilled, steamed, pureed, sauteed, or baked…smoothie recipes, pasta dishes, omelets, pie and strudel filling, pizza or salad topping, homemade baby purees, the possibilities are endless! For a quick and nutritious, yet sweet dessert, bake or puree your favorite squash and top it with some maple syrup. And don’t throw away those seeds…the seeds from all winter squash, not only pumpkins, are edible and make a great snack food. Just roast them for 20-30 minutes at 300⁰F.
Here is a Quick Breakdown of the Most Common Types of Winter Squash:
Pumpkins used for cooking and baking are not the same as those we use for decorating for Halloween, also known as the Field Pumpkin. These are best used just for carving as they are very fibrous, dry and flavorless. Once emptied, use these as a soup bowl or beverage dispenser!
For baking or cooking, smaller, round pumpkins, have an exterior skin that can range in color from pale to bright deep orange, a thick orange colored flesh and are grown specifically for eating. They have the best sweet, earthy flavor and the perfect texture for pumpkin puree. A 4 lb pumpkin yields 1.5 cups of pumpkin puree. Sugar pumpkins, sweet pumpkins and different heirloom varieties are ideal for pumpkin pies.
Miniature or Tiny Pumpkins are also grown for cooking and eating and come in a variety of colors. Not only are they edible, but also pretty. They can be enjoyed as a table centerpiece and make the perfect individual serving bowl the same way you would a "cocotte" or mini ramekin!
Named for its acorn like shape, this squash has a deep green colored skin and pale yellow-orange flesh. If its rind has turned orange, it will have a tough and fibrous flesh.
Its ridged skin makes it challenging to peel, but luckily it is also edible, so just leave it on and it will soften as it cooks!
It has a unique mild flavor which is a combination of sweet, nutty and peppery.
Often times these will be stuffed and then roasted as its shape make it the perfect bowl, but like all other squash they are very versatile.
Heart of Gold
This squash is a hybrid of the Acorn squash.
Its flesh is tender and firm like the acorn, but sweeter.
It has the shape of the acorn squash, but its rind is a creamy white with dark green or orange stripes.
This is one of the most common types of winter squash and also the sweetest variety.
Known for its large pear shape, this squash has a smooth, cream colored skin, a sweet flavored deep orange flesh and few seeds.
Similar in taste and texture to a sweet potato, but with half the calories, carbohydrates and sugar per serving! Another advantage is that it keeps its shape when cooked, just chop it up or dice it and add it to your rice, salad, pasta, soups, etc.
Useful tip: this squash can be particularly difficult to chop and peel…try softening it up in the microwave for 3-4 minutes (don’t forget to poke it all over with a fork) before cutting it and use a vegetable peeler to take off the skin!
These squash are a new variety of Butternut squash with a pumpkin shape.
Their flesh is deliciously sweet and creamy-smooth in texture, just like a Butternut.
They can be used in any recipe calling for butternut squash; ravioli stuffing, pies or soups.
This squash is squat and round, has a green skin with paler green striations and a firm, dense, bright yellow-orange flesh. It is often distinguished by a round ridge it has on its bottom.
It tends to be dryer in texture than other squash, so steaming and baking are the best cooking methods.
It has a firmer texture and a sweet flavor once cooked, sweeter than most winter squash.
Another common type of squash, the spaghetti squash has a cylindrical or oblong shape and pale cream to bright yellow skin. Unlike the other winter squash, its flesh lacks sweetness and has a very mild flavor.
Once roasted just use a fork to the inside flesh to pull apart the strands and you’ll understand exactly where it got its name from. Add some homemade tomato sauce, freshly grated Parmigiano and Buon Appetito!
This squash has a creamy white skin striped with green or orange, depending on maturity, and yellow colored flesh. It has a tart apple taste when eaten raw, which takes on a sweet chestnut or hazelnut flavor when cooked.
Its skin is thin and therefore more susceptible to bruising and rotting, on the other hand it is edible and makes this a quick cooking squash.
Just like the acorn squash and the mini pumpkins, this squash is also ideal for stuffing.
A cross between the Delicata and the Spaghetti squash varieties. Like the Spaghetti squash its flesh also separates into spaghetti-like strands, but from the outside it looks like a big Delicata.
When cooked its flavor resembles more that of sweet potatoes.
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